"She looks like she's about to throw up," said the Bulls employee who was watching over Suzanne before her introduction on Friday night. In the Nuggets' locker room, guard Bryant Stith actually said, "We're just trying to get through this next anthem." Tim Marshall, one of the participants in the scheduled halftime wheelchair basketball game, said, "Tell you what, I'd stand if I could."
In the sold-out crowd there were 10 signs asking Rodman to throw them any article of clothing for every placard asking Abdul-Rauf to leave the country. What was most in evidence were U.S. flags—little ones, big ones, people wearing them like shawls. "This guy's making $3 million a year," asked Bulls fan Chuck Place, whose wife, Merri, was draped in a flag, "and he's oppressed?" (Of course, Abdul-Rauf's supporters point out you don't have to be oppressed to be sympathetic to the oppressed.)
Finally, it was time. The United Center public address announcer said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stand [pause] for the playing of our national anthem." Abdul-Rauf jumped up from tying his shoes and stood in line with his teammates.
Never in your life have you seen so many people in their seats five minutes to tip-off. Never have you seen so many players standing perfectly still and straight. Never have you seen so many hats doffed, so many hands over hearts, heard so many voices trying to reach those high G's. Somewhere, you just knew a scoutmaster was crying.
From the beginning the fans cheered in tribute to the anthem, drowning out poor Suzanne. "I didn't hear any of it," said the Bulls' Michael Jordan, who, for the first time in his life, stood unnoticed in a room with 23,692 people.
All eyes were on Abdul-Rauf, who clenched his eyes tightly, cupped his hands six inches in front of his face and stayed that way despite being bombarded by photographers' strobes. Finally, about the time Suzanne hit "free," he took his hands and wiped them down his gaunt, goateed face.
"I thought the point of the anthem was to face the flag," said Denver forward Reggie Williams afterward. "It seemed to me everybody was facing Mahmoud."
And that was that. It was one of those rare times when sportswriters could have typed their leads before player introductions. In fact, as Chicago jumped ahead 9-0, the guys who update the standings could have gotten a head start too. The Bulls would win their 39th straight at home, 108-87.
Abdul-Rauf was booed halfheartedly every time he touched the ball. He nearly shot that often, too, but played well enough, scoring 19 points. "He's a good kid," said Jordan. "He's got his beliefs, and I may not agree with them, but I give him all the credit for trying to stick to them."
Did you hear the boos, someone asked Abdul-Rauf? "No, I was thinking of my Creator," came the reply.